Higher Education

MLA's white paper on the undergraduate major

If you're an MLA member you probably received an email recently about the MLA Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature.There are a couple interesting lines and pieces of data in this 30-odd page report. Here's one I picked out of particular interest to me:

Our cybernetic world has brought us speed and ease of information retrieval; even where the screen has replaced paper, however, language still remains the main mode of communication. Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment.

On a certain level this makes absolute sense, but let's read slowly and carefully as is suggested here. "Language" remains the main mode of communication. Why "language"? What does this word mean here? Is it a move of inclusiveness toward the foreign language disciplines that are also part of MLA? Somehow I don't think "programming language" is being suggested. Why not "text"? There's no sense here of the changing materiality of this context. Information is retrieved with "speed and ease," as if information storage and management were a transparent operation. The suggestion is that text on the screen can be treated the same as text on a page.

I would agree that there is a value in learning to read slowly and carefully. Such "close reading" has always been a part of English studies, in literature or rhetoric or creative writing. However I would suggest that the methods of slow/careful reading do not translate unproblematically from page to screen, just as they don't translate unproblematically from a printed novel to a printed technical manuel. The continued faith in the notion of a universal literacy just strikes me as bizarrre. We would never let anyone get away with such claims to universality in scholarship. Furthermore, the "cybernetic world" (cybernetic is such an antiquated word, too; I keep hearing the sound track to Six Million Dollar Man) cannot be approached by slow/careful reading alone. There is too much information for that. Information retrieval isn't that easy. One needs a whole different set of reading methods to address wide and deep pools of data, media, and text.

Then one can move on to the next set of modifiers–writing "clearly and precisely." Again, where else in our discipline would we allow such intellectual carelessness? Might not clarity and precision be competing goals? Isn't that what we find in scholarly prose or legal documents or technical instructions? Don't these values shift from one discourse to another? Does skill in one genre translate to another?

Finally the most bizarre phrase of all: "the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment." Huh? Talk about a lack of clarity and precision! Here we have a kind of strange translation. I'm guessing this is supposed to suggest that if I learn to read novels and poems closely that I will somehow gain the ability to analyze the image, graphic, design, and video elements of "electronic environments." Honestly, I don't know if studying the qualities in one electronic environment necessarily translates to another electronic environment: does a facility with first-person shooter video games translate to a facility with the graphic displays in a scientific database? I'm fairly skeptical of the likelihood of reading books to make this happen.

If one has any doubts about this, one can visit any English or foreign language department. By this logic, MLA members should be expert users of electronic environments. In my experience that is not the case. And to the extent that it is the case, I don't think it is something that came to them automatically because they'd closely read a lot of books. I know reading novels as an English undergrad did not mean I automatically knew how to design brochures and printed instructional manuels when I was working as a technical writer in the late 80s/early 90s. I had to figure that out. The same thing was true for mean in learning web design. If you think that print literacy equals multimedia literacy, then I invite you to compose a webtext for Kairos Praxis and send it to me. It shouldn't take you any longer than writing the article normally would, right?

And I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with the fact that MLA members are not experts in electronic environments. MLA members don't need to have a special interest or facility with electronic environments. That's not what we hire them for and it's not what we educate them to do in graduate school. Some might have these interests; obviously I think the study of media networks ought to be a part of English studies; but it ought not to be a requirement of everyone! Nor should every MLA scholar or MLA in general necessarily think that their work needs to meet this goal of networked media literacy.

However if MLA and its rank and file actually believe that their undergraduate curriculum should provide students with a critical understanding and facility with information-media networks, then I think they really need to recognize that teaching literature is a very indirect, if not tangential, path. But that's a big IF. Obviously the MLA feels some pressure to gesture in this direction but only in so much as they can say that what the MLA has always done already addresses this goal.

I just don't think anyone should believe that.

The bottomline, I guess, is that IF you want to develop an ability to study and compose networked media that you should probably be studying and composing networked media, at least as an integral part of your curriculum.